This years Edinburgh International Film Festival in June included a strand specifically for Korean movies for the first time. We headed to Edinburgh to check out the films on offer, and here is our first review; National Security. Warning, spoilers ahead!
National Security is a movie based on the real life story of torture and illegal arrests in Namyeong-dong in 1985, as documented in Kim Geun-Tae’s memoirs. Many citizens at the time were detained and tortured for days for protesting against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-Hwan and accused of being communist spies for North Korea.
However, the 2012 movie isn’t director Chung Ji-Young’s first dip into directing dramatisations of real life events, as he previously created ‘Unbowed’ the previous year based on the Crossbow Terror incident in Korea in 2007.
National Security follows the gruelling tale of Kim Jong-Tae (Park Won-Sang) who is illegally detained and condemned to 22 days of horrific torture in attempts to make him confess that he is a North Korean terrorist and/or led an anti-government organisation. In reality, Kim Jong-Tae was the ex-advisor to the Democratic United Party, hoping for democratisation of Korea rather than the military dictatorship. During his time held captive at Namyeong-Dong, Kim Jong-Tae is subjected to horrific torture, humiliation and psychological suffering as he seems to quickly descend into insanity.
The torture aspect of the film is jumped straight into within the first 5 minutes of the movie, starting off with a violent beating, and Kim Jong-Tae had only just arrived. The captors are careful to avoid his face however, as it is later revealed that they ‘don’t want there to be any marks’. Which is rather interesting, as it implies they don’t plan to keep him captive nor kill him.
However, they spare poor Kim Jong-Tae no pain as he is deprived of food and sleep for the first few days of his stay before the more cruel torture begins. He is already regularly beaten and then comes the water boarding and electrical torture by the heartless ‘Undertaker’. Kim Jong-Tae nearly dies several times and is nursed back to some semblance of health, purely to begin torturing him again.
Whilst the tortures take place, the other captors seem to mill around, often making jokes and talking about their personal lives. Although extremely out of place in a film so heavily focused on torture, I felt it developed the story more and it was interesting to see the attitude changes in the characters as the days ticked by.
The more rotund character of ‘Baek’ is the least violent of the bunch, and is shown to feel guilty about Kim Jong-Tae on multiple occasions, even offering him a ‘gentleman’s deal’, saying that Jong-Tae can rest whilst he takes a nap. He also tries to cut short The Undertaker’s torture a few times, persistently and worriedly pointing out that Jong-Tae’s toes are wiggling – a sign that he has something to say. He definitely doesn’t have it in him to be as heartless as The Undertaker, and it makes you wonder how and why he is even there.
The most interesting character for me, however, was ‘Kim’. Kim starts off as incredibly violent, pushing in to get his swings at Kim Jong-Tae but as the film rolls on, he finds himself confiding in Jong-Tae as a way to pass time. Through his confessions we learn about his life, including that his girlfriend wants to leave him for a guy with a better job. She later leaves him and Kim lashes out at Jong-Tae drunkenly, beating him up and blurting out things he seems to tell himself to make himself feel better; that beating up people is an awesome job and that ‘alcohol makes all the pain go away’. The scene reveals things Kim wants to believe, and in fact is one of the scenes with the most character building. The point you realise that Kim is changing, is when he later brings Jong-Tae food because he felt remorse for beating him up when drunk. Eating also means that Jong-Tae won’t be tortured that day, as The Undertaker previously says. So for me, that was a huge step with his character.
But as for Jong-Tae himself, we learn that he has a family; a wife and two kids. He even begins to hallucinate about them, and in one of his hallucinations, his wife tells him not to ‘fight too hard’, suggesting he should eventually give them what they want. His hallucinations actually save him at one point as he notices there’s nobody around and goes to attempt to leave the room. Once he opens the door, he sees the beach and his wife and kids, and he also sees himself. The hallucination of himself reaches out to him and he runs away back into the room. The scene seemed to represent the freedom that he could have if he just gave up and told them the lies they wanted to hear, but Jong-Tae wasn’t yet ready to give up. Thankfully the hallucination drove him back into the room, as we can only imagine what would have happened if he were to be discovered outside of the room.
Jong-Tae does, eventually, tell them the lies they are looking for but initially his story is full of lies as The Undertaker points out, and declares that it would not stand in a court of law. This is when you realise their intentions for keeping Jong-Tae alive and visibly unmarked; they’re forcing people to confess they are communists and then convicting them legally, which presumably would end in a death sentence and no blood on the captors hands. Jong-Tae is forced to correct his confession and once he finally does to their satisfaction he is cleaned up properly and prepared to be released. However, he suddenly blurts the real truth again and is promptly jumped by the captors once more. The Undertaker tries to pull a gun on him but is surprisingly intervened with by Kim, The Undertaker has to then be convinced not to shoot Kim too. Kim begs Jong-Tae to save his own life, because he was nearly free, because of his family, and it’s implied that Kim wishes he could leave and start the family he couldn’t have with his ex-girlfriend.
After Jong-Tae reverts to claiming his statement as truth the movie flickers into the future with a flourish of news headlines detailing the events after Jong-Tae’s release, who became the Health and Welfare minister for Korea. Whilst ‘The Undertaker’ was arrested and claimed to want to become a priest. The movie ends with Jong-Tae making a visit to the self-proclaimed reformed Undertaker who begs him for forgiveness whilst shaking, but a little twist at the end reveals he is not so reformed after all.
Overall, I felt the film’s focus was not equally balanced. Most of the film revolved around continuous and stomach churning torture scenes, and what little character development there was, was not evenly spread. I thought Kim became more developed than Jong-Tae. The end of the film truly felt like a rush to give more story and depth to the film. I feel that if there was a better story running through less scenes of torture, the film would have been better received. Reports state that at the film’s premier, many left out of discomfort and I even found myself at the screening, there weren’t many people to see it and the ticket attendant even warned about the content.
However, there were good elements to the film and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of politics, but otherwise you might want to save your heart and stomach the pain and watch a cheery comedy instead.
With that said I would give the film an overall 5/10. It could have been better, but I do think it could have also been worse, especially for those faint of heart. If you’ve watched the movie, let us know in the comments what you thought of it!